How to Build More Personal Power

What to do when you lack the clout you need.

It’s a classic career management challenge: dealing with those times when the power we need is not the power we have.

Jean-Louis Barsoux and Cyril Bouquet, a senior research fellow and a professor of strategy respectively at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, call this the moment when we are a “power-deficient executive,” or PDE. They say that it’s a common ailment and a role that most executives will experience at some point in their careers. Reasons range from the demographic group an executive is in to the level of his or her experience to personality quirks.

The good news, Barsoux and Bouquet write in “How to Overcome a Power Deficit” in the summer 2013 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, is that “deficits can almost always be overcome by following one of two basic strategies.” Here are some highlights from their article.

Strategy One: Play the Game.

Barsoux and Bouquet’s research came in large part from coaching 179 executives who had experienced a power deficit at some point. What Barsoux and Bouquet discovered is that executives’ deficiencies fall into three major areas: legitimacy, critical resources and networks.

For PDEs who are not in the “in group” and whose lack of legitimacy may be based on an unproven track record or a perceived lack of commitment, one route Barsoux and Bouquet recommend is exceeding the boss’s expectations by "managing up" and focusing on that person's priorities. “PDEs must uncover the boss’s preferences — such as for email versus face-to-face discussions, brevity versus depth, levity versus seriousness — and adjust their communication styles accordingly,” Barsoux and Bouquet write. “PDEs must also identify the main pressures and constraints weighing on the boss, as well as his or her goals and interests, so they can provide the kind of support that will help the boss succeed.”

PDEs who lack resources can play the game by accumulating social credits, write Barsoux and Bouquet. “PDEs can build their power bases by easing other people’s burdens. If they become good at this, powerful people will come to see them as valuable allies.”

And PDEs who aren’t part of key networks can wiggle their way in by cultivating senior mentors and by identifying critical movers and shakers. “Often, one senior figure can be enough to change the perception,” write Barsoux and Bouquet. They cite the example of a Nestlé employee who was put in charge of an organization-wide initiative but only found traction after he identified a key opinion leader and got that leader to pilot the initiative in his region.

Strategy Two: Change the Game.

On the other hand, executives who are struggling with issues of legitimacy, resources or networks can try to redefine the expectations of their boss. That means using different tactics than those for simply playing the game.

To change the game, a PDE struggling with legitimacy would work to reconfigure the initial job or create an entirely new job. A PDE struggling with resources would work to become a resource. And a PDE lacking in solid networks would not only reach up, but would reach out, building relationships across boundaries and performing matchmaking. Instead of just becoming “a central player in an existing network,” write Barsoux and Bouquet, an executive who wants to change the game would take “a more radical approach” and “act as a link with other networks — in other words, to become a play maker.”

For all the suggestions from Barsoux and Bouquet for turning a power deficiency upside down, and for advice on risks that may follow, see the full article, “How to Overcome a Power Deficit.” For thoughts about how to capitalize specifically on an introverted personality, see “The Power of Introverts, the Power of Quiet.” And for more on overall leadership skills, see Barsoux’s 2012 article with Ginka Toegel, “How to Become a Better Leader.”